Philosophers and their Animals No.3(a): Jacques Derrida


(a) The Deconstruction of Animality (Derrida, early)


(Yep, already circumventing my own “in 500(ish) words or less” restriction by splitting Derrida’s thought in two (and even then still going over the count). This is not to suggest a sudden break or turn within Derrida’s thought, however. In a very real sense, deconstruction begins with nonhuman animals (although this requires next time a negotiation around Derrida’s own refusal of vegetarianism or, rather, his displacement of a concrete vegan practice within an illusory thesis of the soul).)


“One understands a philosopher,” insists Derrida, “only by heeding closely what he [sic] means to demonstrate, and in reality fails to demonstrate, concerning the limit between human and animal” (Animal 106). Animals concern Derrida, haunting his texts; indeed, Derrida’s later explicit attentiveness to the “question of the animal” must not be considered as something external to—and thus distinct from—his thinking of différance, trace, and iterability that constitutes the inaugural movement of deconstruction. Rather, the concern with both the diversity of animals and the philosophical conception of “the animal” is indissociable from deconstruction and, more specifically, with what Derrida terms “writing” (écriture): one cannot, in short, affirm the differential double movement of protention and retention (différance) whilst simultaneously rejecting the deconstruction of human exceptionalism.

Writing, insists Derrida, is firstly a mark that “is not exhausted in the present of its inscription” and which can thus give rise to an iteration “in the absence of and beyond the presence of the empirically determined subject who … has emitted or produced it.” Secondly, and as a result, such a mark carries with it, given its essential iterability, “a force of breaking with its context,” whether that be the so-called “real” context or the semiotic and internal context. Finally, this “force of the rupture is due to the spacing which constitutes the written sign,” a spacing which “is not the simple negativity of a lack, but the emergence of the mark” (Margins 317).

Derrida’s term “iterability” refers explicitly to this reiteration which a priori structures every mark and which therefore “introduces an essential dehiscence and demarcation [brisure]” (326). There can be no language without the possibilites and necessities of iterability—a possibility and necessity which belongs, moreover, to the formal and grammatical, and thus to the machinic. In short, no language without iterability. More importantly, however, no iterability without language. This machinery of the iter necessarily works in both directions, not only interrupting the auto-nomy of the human utterance but also and at once the so-called “fixity of animal determination” (as reaction, instinct, drive, etc.). Following through this logic, Derrida thus insists of his three predicates of écriture that they are found not only in spoken language, not only in “the order of ‘signs’,” not only in all “language in general,” but—

“ultimately in the totality of “experience,” to the extent that it is not separated from the field of the mark, that is, the grid of erasure and difference, of unities of iterability, of unities separable from their internal and external context, and separable from themselves, to the extent that the very iterability which constitutes their identity never permits them to be a unity of self-identity” (318).

This insistent affirmation of iterability as the condition of existence and thus of “the living in general” can be found from the beginning to the end of Derrida’s oeuvre. Thus, more than three decades later during his seminar on “The Beast and the Sovereign,” Derrida insists that “It is enough, a minimal condition, that we take into account the divisibility, multiplicity, or difference of forces in a living being, whatever it may be. It is enough to admit that there is no finite living being, human or nonhuman, that wouldn’t be structured by this differential of forces” (somewhere in the fifth session, first volume).

Iterative excess, in short, is a structural characteristic of every mark, every sense, and thus of every finite living being—an excess, moreover, which necessarily shatters the traditional binaries of human/animal, nature/culture, reaction/response, and instinct/will. As a result of this (although this cannot be detailed here), those traditionally exceptional “properties” of “the human” are similarly exploded: no longer can nonhuman animals be excluded on the basis of a mythical lack, be it the lack of language, of response, of technics, of death, etc., etc.



About Richard Iveson

Postdoctoral Research Fellow I have a PhD from Goldsmiths College, University of London; my teaching and research interests include animal studies; Continental philosophy; posthumanism; cultural studies; biotechnology and cyberculture; post-Marxism. Books; Being and Not Being: On Posthuman Temporarily (London & Washington: Rowman & Littlefield International, 2016), forthcoming. Zoogenesis: Thinking Encounter with Animals ( London: Pavement Books, 2014). View all posts by Richard Iveson

One response to “Philosophers and their Animals No.3(a): Jacques Derrida

  • Federico

    Nice blow in the head Derrida gave to us vegans :S

    Thank you for setting up this space, Richard. Very useful for students like me who are taking the first steps towars the study of Derrida´s oeuvre

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